Toronto FC head into Saturday's match against Nashville SC with a point to prove.
“We're not where we want to be,” levelled Bob Bradley during Friday’s match day minus-one availability. “There's been an incredible amount of work needed to undo certain situations, try to get the right guys here, try to improve in all ways on the field. We still haven't had a consistency of lineups for various reasons, really since Lorenzo [Insigne] and Fede [Federico Bernardeschi] arrived in the summer last year, the type of consistency needed to compete.”
“We compete alright, but to get it to the next level where we are able to take some of these tight games and turn them more consistently into three points,” he continued. “That is absolutely the challenge for us and we are not there yet.”
At the start of the campaign the club was on the cusp of finding that next level, rattling off a seven-match unbeaten run after the late defeat on opening day away to D.C. United, despite losing Insigne in the opener.
As the schedule ramped up and the injury list grew longer there was a dip, but TFC has since taken results in four of their last five matches, conceding just three goals throughout, and now enter the weekend just three points off the playoff line in the Eastern Conference.
“We've been trying to progress game after game,” explained Sean Johnson. “Obviously, no one is satisfied with where we are on the table. We want to be at the top, we want to be winning games, week in, week out, and everybody is committed to doing that.”
At its peak, that injury list was eleven players deep. A team will always have some injuries to deal with, but on a 30-man roster that is a heavy burden.
“In different moments you might be missing guys and we're always ready to have the next player set for his opportunity” outlined Bradley. “But there are some key players that make a difference when they're on the field and when you miss them it's a little bit harder for the ones that are there. There's no two ways about it.”
It now sits at six with one of those key players available for selection once more: Jonathan Osorio.
“Oso has been training all week and is available,” confirmed Bradley. “So certainly a good sign for us.”
Added Johnson: “He’s important for the group.”
“A really talented player we've missed,” he continued. “So many guys stepped up in big moments this year, so to have him back is going to be a boost.”
Getting healthy is one part of the package that will allow Toronto to reach that next level.
“It’s a lot of things,” said Bradley. “It's getting as many guys as possible to their top level. It's making sure that as a team there's a real confidence in what happens every time we step on the field, that there's a consistency in terms of the football that we play for 90-plus minutes.”
“We see stretches in games where good things happen, but our ability to sustain that, to make sure that when we move up the field, when we lose balls, we're a little bit more committed to not letting the other team get out,” he detailed. “Just being a more consistent, better team with as many guys as possible playing at their best level.”
The team is together in that aim.
“We all agree that we want to be higher in the table,” said Johnson. “It's just going out and finding a way to climb. That's what everybody is committed to. The mood of the locker room is confident.”
With the madness of May in the rear-view, the MLS season shifts into a different form. The Concacaf Nations League Finals next week and the Concacaf Gold Cup kicking off at the end of the month see a more measured pace of games through the middle of July when the league pauses for the inaugural edition of the Leagues Cup.
Toronto has seven matches scheduled between Saturday and July 15, each as important as the next.
It begins with the visit of Nashville SC to BMO Field.
Gary Smith’s side arrives in good form, winners of their last four matches and unbeaten in eight, stretching back to mid-April. Nashville sit in second place in the East, a point ahead of the Philadelphia Union and eight points off the blistering pace of conference leaders FC Cincinnati.
“They're always organized, they're very good in transition, good on set-pieces,” outlined Bradley. “They have a real clear idea of what they're all about.”
“Hany Mukhtar has, in the last few years for them, been such an important player. So good in transition, an ability to take a play and create something,” he highlighted. “He scores, he sets up goals, he delivers good set-pieces. He's a really important part of what they do.”
Mukhtar, with ten goals and seven assists, leads the way again this season for Nashville.
“A very talented player, reigning MVP, you don’t do that by chance,” said Johnson. “He put together a really, really good season, one of the best in the league and one of the best we’ve ever seen. You have to respect him as a player.”
“A quality finisher, a quality passer,” he added. “He's got a lot of tools in his bag.”
The supporting cast includes a number of former Reds: Jacob Shaffelburg has three goals in 15 appearances, Dan Lovitz has three assists, while Lukas MacNaughton, who went the other way in the trade that brought CJ Sapong to Toronto, has already found the back of the net with a towering header for his new side.
The two teams have already met once this season, a 0-0 draw at GEODIS Park on April 8. Nashville won the first two meetings between the sides, including the first-ever in the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, but Toronto are unbeaten in the last four.
With that April meeting still fresh in the mind, Johnson expects this one to be “a little different.”
“Both teams now have gotten a look at [each other], how they set-up, how we set up in Nashville,” he said. “Being at home now – they were home – I'm sure there will be adjustments made on both ends.”
“It should make for a good game,” Johnson closed. “Looking forward to the challenge.”